Brad Pitt, Not So Hidden Racism and Sexism, and “World War Z” (2013)

World War Z is a poor movie that boosts Brad Pitt, racism, and sexism. For a fairly crowded theater, I have never seen it empty as quickly as it did yesterday. 

Beware – spoilers follow.

Film Still from World War Z From Google Images

Film Still from World War Z
From Google Image Search

With a name like World War Z and the strong connotations associated with the words “world war,” I expected World War Z to be a war in some way related to world wars that have actually happened. I envisioned something “worse” than the world has seen before. (“Worse” is in quotations marks because the historian in me, especially after reading Micol Seigel’s article “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn,” does not like to compare historical moments or peoples and make value judgments – its relationships that matter.) I expected a nuclear war – though that would be an ultra sensitive topic. Otherwise, maybe a massive eruption of people “at the bottom” in a war with wide-spread poverty like nothing imaginable today.

In reality, World War Z portrays a war that very quickly takes over 4 billion lives on several continents. The aggressive force is a virus that transforms healthy humans into zombie-like beings 10 seconds after they are bitten. They instantly bite others. Like we really need another zombie film with nothing new, nothing except mug shots of Pitt that is.

World War Z revolves around Brad Pitt at the expense of any possible logical development. We can quickly deconstruct any number of scenes in World War Z. Writers do everything possible to make Pitt (aka Gerry Lane) a god-like hero. Slight tweaks in many of the scenes would have added a sense of logic or morality but would have provided fewer glamor shots of Pitt. In fact, he is almost the only character in the film.

For example: Pitt is in the vault with the disease they need to make a vaccination: Why isn’t there a phone (like there was right outside of the room) or an intercom system connected to the security camera where the people running the lab could tell him what to get? There isn’t a phone because we are to believe that Pitt finds the correct vial out of hundreds all on his own, even though his character does not have medical training. If something like this had happened once – okay, but come on.

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World War Z  is another “mighty whitey” film: Women and non-whites need a white man for survival. Word War Z revolves around a privileged white male. The United Nations’s Army and doctors are virtually all white and male. Thierry, the man who helps coordinate some of Pitt’s travel around the world, is so-called black, but his role is little more than a few supporting seconds on a few occasions. At the beginning of the film, Pitt suddenly adopts a child, Tommy, whose Spanish-speaking parents were turned into zombies moments before. Tommy has no role in the film after Pitt saves him. At the end of the film when the vaccine Pitt discovered is being distributed, the film shows non-white nations being helped, especially those in the African continent. Thus the film only has a “white voice.”

Film Still from World War Z From Google Images Pitt's Film Wife Take Care of the Children in World War Z

Pitt’s Film Wife Taking Care of the Children in World War Z
Film Stills from World War Z
From Google Image Search

Women are also surprisingly absent. They are given very little on-screen time and even fewer speaking lines. Pitt’s wife in the film has a handful of lines where she fully embodies a stereotypically motherly role. Every scene includes her taking care of and worrying about her children or husband. Pitt’s two daughters in the film also have just a few lines and only at the beginning: one where they tell their parents a joke, the others where they are screaming.

In Israel, as zombies attack, Pitt saves a female soldier, Segen, by cutting off part of her arm seconds after a zombie has bitten her.

Film Still from World War Z Brad Pitt Protecting Segen From Google Images

Brad Pitt Protecting Segen
Film Still from World War Z
From Google Image Search

..

..

Segen has a few speaking lines. All of her lines consist of supporting Pitt’s efforts in saving the world, thanking Pitt, or screaming.

There is also one woman who is still alive and who works at the World Health Care Organization lab that Pitt has been traveling toward to work on the cure needed to stop zombies. She also just has a few lines; however, she is not used just for screaming lines or stereotypical female roles.

Never do two women speak to each another in this movie – making it fail the Bechdel test. (There is one very brief scene where one named woman and one unnamed woman speak, but to pass the Bechdel, both would need names.) Furthermore, never does a female character initiate conversation: Pitt asks the questions.

As individuals racialized white are quickly becoming a numerical minority in the United States, perhaps the film aims to present all white men via Pitt as being more and better than everyone else. The film also guarantees the future success and prominence of whites. It ends with Pitt saying:

This isn’t the end; not even close.

World War Z relies on unrealistic, humiliating, and stereotypical mistakes by non-whites and females to develop the story. Of course, everyone realizes that movies require a certain willing suspense of disbelief. This is different.

Early in the film, Israel is safe because they have built a wall around their entire country in anticipation of such a world-wide outbreak. The UN sends Pitt to Israel, a nation of peoples historically racialized as other than or less than those racialized as so-called white, to begin his investigation and mission to save the world. Pitt is only there briefly until zombies climb over the wall, invade, and turn everyone in sight who cannot escape into a zombie.

Image Still from World War Z From Google Image Search

Zombies Invade Israel
Image Still from World War Z
From Google Image Search

It is completely unrealistic and inappropriate that in such a case, the entire nation would leave the wall unguarded and without any buffer zones or other security measures. In the film, hundreds of people are standing right next to the wall on the inside – as if they have no understanding of the dangers inches away. This makes Israel, a nation that has actually been an important ally of the United States, look “dumb” and naive in the film.

Furthermore, the zombies overtake the wall seconds after an unnamed non-white female starts singing over the loud speakers. Since these zombies are attracted to loud noise, they go toward the sound as quickly as possible.

At another point, as Pitt and his crew are preparing to leave South Korea, everything is safe until his wife calls his cellphone, which awakens the zombies. In both of these cases and these are the only two instances when peace is so violently disrupted, the female character isn’t aware–to no fault of her own–that her actions endanger the entire world.

World War Z lacks any basic notion of human morality or sensitivity. No one, especially not Pitt, advocates finding a cure the zombies/infected humans. No one mourns the loss of billions of people. Instead, they are othered, deemed useless, murdered, and forgotten, even when unnecessary for the protection of healthy individuals. At the end, when a cure has been reached for the uninfected humans, the film shows zombies being gathered together and firebombed.

At the very beginning, the film announces the president, vice president, and many other top officials of the United States have been overtaken; although this is not necessarily immoral, it is certainly insensitive.

Although not related to the film’s content at all, consider all of the other things that could have been done with its $200,000,000 budget, plus all the associated cost for people see World War Z in the movie theater.

World War Z Poster

Film Poster for World War Z
From Google Image Search

All-in-all World War Z is another fairly cliched action movie with serious and basic flaws. Except for a few brief scenes near the very beginning, there is nothing scary, juicy, exciting, sad, or even unique. Not even blood and guts – anywhere – something typically expected in such a movie. Special effects are generally horrible (see the first image above). There are no “ah ha” moments in any of the characters’ developments as people. There are also far too many major flaws, gaps, and unanswered questions in the story. Too many times when viewers are asked to buy into believing the impossible. While recognizing that it is a fictional, sci-fi story, I cannot think of anything that holds up if analyzed for a second.

For example, at one point at the beginning, World War Z shows a map of the places currently invaded. Virtually the entire world is already lit up. The basic math does not work. According to the movie, it should actually only take about 33 10 second periods to infect 4.3 billion people – roughly the number infected at the beginning of the film. This would mean that in no more than six minutes, the entire human population would be zombies. We are also suppose to believe that an hour later in the film’s time the world has been saved, repopulated, and everything is fine.

Reviewer Robbie Collin sums up one action perfectly in his review by saying, “…an important character trips up and accidentally shoots himself in the head, and you start to question whether the planet might in fact be safer in the hands of the zombies.”

The film was presumably made by only considering one question:
How can we make Brad Pitt look the best and make us money?

Even worse are the cultural representations found in World War Z. White men have the attention and power. Without them we are suppose to believe life would not be possible.

We need to discuss and historicize the popularity of zombies. Why now? In films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the pods (zombie-like creatures) have been interpreted as representing Cold War fears and more recently fears associated with the beginnings of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Some possibilities for what today’s zombies represent include the white fear of becoming a minority, fear of an apocalypse and death, fear of life existing outside Earth, fear about actual human limits, and questions about different manifestations of life.

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16 responses

    • What was it like, please? I’ve heard lots of different things about it on all sides? Some have criticized me for not also reading the book this move was based on, but I look at each text as having a largely independent existence per se for purposes of this kind of analysis.

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  1. I will say, that my professor encouraged me to post my counter review on your website. So this review is written as a response to out professor’s questioning our opinion of your review.

    . I have to say after watching the movie and reading this review, this is not a very good review. The author over generalizes and downright ignores some key details of scenes to make a point. In the beginning of the article he immediately starts the movie in Israel, totally ignoring the relevance of all of the scenes before hand, which is about twenty minutes of the movie. He jumps right in and discusses how Israel is “made to look dumb and naive” by “leaveing the wall unguarded and without any buffer zones or other security measures”. This observation is down right wrong. There is a wall, that is being patrolled by the military, next there is fences and armed check points that lead into the city. past the check points there are caged in paths leading to various points in the city, not to mention numerous armed helicopters patrolling the sky’s even beyond the walls.
    His case for racism can be made, but the writer fails to portray the actual accounts. He could have easily cited the derogatory remarks made by the surviving military men in the North Korea scenes. Or he could have cited the scenes of the celebrating people entering Israel. The film stereotypes the reactions of the people entering the city by depicting them praying, speaking Arabic and Hebrew, as well as wearing traditional garb, for the most part. The scene isn’t depicting Israel as unknowing, it depicts that none of the known ways to protect themselves will be successful, that they will have to develop new defenses.
    The sexism, I feel is much harder to see. When Segen, the Isreali female soldier came on the scene as a protector of Pitt, I thought “Finally! A woman Soldier!” In most zombie movies, or any movie for that matter, the female role is highly sexualized. The clothes are tight and barren, and they are always wearing heals; this woman looked like a soldier, she was wearing what other soldiers would wear, cargo pants, the packed canvas backpack, an m16, and combat boots. And it is she who takes charge and pulls Pitt through the masses of people, killing zombies as needed. She gets bit at Pitt’s expense, has her arm chopped off, and still gets Pitt to a plane to get to a WHO medical facility.

    Yes, she doesn’t speak that much, but to be perfectly honest, NO ONE speaks that much in this movie.The author of the article flatly disregards the cinematic style the movie has, the story is told in first person point of view, Pitt’s character has the majority of the talk points and is the focus of the movie because that’s how the story is intended to be written. The book in which the movie is based upon is a collection of first person accounts that chronologically tells the story of the zombie outbreak and solution that helps ends the ‘war’.

    I will agree that the film is a cliche action film, but most zombie and war films are. And yes the viewers are expected to believe in ridiculous things, such as the spread time, and the reality that he would have selected the “correct”vile.
    However, the author of the article fails to account that the virus did not immediately have the infection rate of 10-12 seconds, the South Korean infections took days to completely ‘turn’ people, the film does not elude to any type of time frame but it does display a change in days at the least, so reducing the film to be a solutions with in the “hour and half” is pompous. Secondly the author also overlooked or misinterpreted the scene in which he infects himself. He did not infect himself with the cure, he infected himself with something on the fly in order to be ill and bypass the zombies waiting to attack him on his mission to bring the vials of the infectious diseases to the WHO workers so they could create a vaccine.

    I can agree with the author of the article that a film was insensitive to the deaths of people, however, humans become insensitive when entering survival mode. I believe the film did a great job of portraying the emotions of people who were being left in the dark about the realities of the situation, such as the soldiers in South Korea who asked of the status of various cities in the United States and proceeded to cry or display other emotions in reaction of the grim news.
    When the survivors entered Israel and proceeded to celebrate, although stereotypical and fueled by ideal portrayals of the people, I believe it was accurate in the display of a celebratory type response.
    When his wife is unable to contact him at various times, the fear and sadness she displays is an accurate display of emotions in the terms of a military spouse who awaits the confirmation of the safety of their loved ones.

    The author finally states: Even worse are the cultural representations found in World War Z. White men have the attention and power. Without them we are suppose to believe life would not be possible.
    To me this again makes the author look ridiculous because if you follow the chain of command in the story, you will see that the next man in charge, is in fact not white, he is African (American?), an agent of the UN. If you look beyond the story of zombies and action scenes you will find a story of a man who was once a skilled investigator for the United Nations. When chaos erupts the safety of his family is held as collateral as he is coerced by UN officials to aid a scientist in investigating the source of the chaos. His original mission was supposed to be simple, but due to unforeseen circumstances he had to use his investigatory skills and find a solution. If we remember, when the UN thought that Pitt was dead from the plane crash, they removed his family from safety and transported them to a refugee center.
    There are major action movie flaws in this movie, however, as far as zombie movies are concerned, it does many things that others don’t. It provides a tangible solution, it provides government structure as well, and it confirms the audience that the international agencies in place could work in such an unimaginable event. In most zombie movies, these agencies are the cause of the problem, not the solution.

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    • Thanks for your interesting reply. I have some comments in return. I will write them later today. I am curious, please, what class and professor this was for. Thanks.

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    • Hi B. Riley,

      Sorry it took a bit longer for me to reply. Thank you for all of your comment. I have read over them a few times. I have a few comments in return.

      Filmic readings and critiques of the kind I do are by their nature selective. I usually focus on racism and sexism and look at every possible instance that could be seen as reinforcing stereotypes or perpetuating discrimination. So for my purposes, it is not necessary to discuss the entire film or every setting or every character, for example. The overall message is important, as are what I see as far too many examples of racism and sexism in WWZ.

      With the Israel and the invasion scene, from what I recall, by the time the soldier noticed and the helicopters started counterattacking, it was too late. Also that the zombies were successful in breaking the “perfect” plan is worth noting. Any backup / protection plan they had wasn’t enough.

      It is true the film had one woman and two individuals racialzed as black. Notice the “one” and “two” element. I also believe that if we really look at these characters, we find they are purposely very limited and don’t have realistic roles. Given the nature of US history, sexism and racism are always relevant for analysis.

      With Pitt’s wife: yes, emotions are natural and expected but that is all her character does. As another commenter said, they could have at least shown her in a 5 second scene helping with tasks on the ship. Also, they could have had Pitt in a gay relationship. Why not? Have him married to a man – this would be an element in which the film could have broken film serotypes. Anytime film uses “default” patterns, relationships, etc, it is worthy of attention.

      Also, one more specific factual detail, the film is not in first-person. First-person would be if Pitt was telling the story and said “I did this,” and it would be very difficult to have any scenes without him, etc. Though it does for sure focus on Pitt as the main character.

      The study of film and the surrounding issues is always fun and interesting. Hope to hear more from you.

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  2. Hello there Andrew,

    What I am always concerned about with these types of analyses are the implications of their premises. For example, if a movie is to be lambasted (or at the very least criticized) because it was apparently overly saturated with a particular racial segment, what exactly constitutes a “fair” representation of population segments? Further, by what criteria should it be decided which groups warrant a fair representation? To be more specific, why should one limit their critique to the lackluster representation of blacks and women? What about Asians of all varieties? And why even stop with gender and race-based groups? Certainly, there are plenty of minority groups that are not characterized primarily by their racial or gender makeup. What about alternative lifestyle groups or groups that are primarily characterized by their religious affiliation? Many (if not most) of these groups do not receive any representation in film whatsoever. And surely, while numerous groups were ‘poorly represented’, even more were completely excluded. In my mind, any critique made on the basis of arbitrarily-delineated group representations is subject to its own premises (in this case a universally equitable representation principle) — yours included.

    I am also concerned with the implicit value judgments at work in analyses such as these. Namely, since your criticism is primarily focused on representations of minority groups, it seems you are principally making a normative case on the basis of a smuggled premise: that equitable representation is a good thing. No justification is provided, and I sincerely doubt that it could be without resulting in absurdities as I tried to allude to above.

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    • Thanks for your comment and attention to these details. It is certainly true one could pick many different elements of under-representation or miss-representation in cultural artifacts that are very much in need of criticism and attention; however, I focus, primarily though not exclusively, on racism and then sexism. Issues of racialization and “sexialization”/”genderization” are everyday, shared experiences, and they are very deeply rooted in history–thus why it is my primary focus. Also, any kind of analysis has to start somewhere and can’t possibly include everything.

      How could equal, fair, and represented representation NOT be a good thing?

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    • My previous comment was not a criticism of your failure to include certain groups. Quite the opposite: I was questioning the very idea of critiquing the film on the basis of group representations. I listed the wide variety of groups not to suggest that you should analyze the film with them in mind, but rather that the number of groups is quite literally infinite. There are limitless criteria upon which groupings can be made, and there is no way to rank any group’s significance or virtue above another’s without falling victim to arbitrary evaluations. Consequently, since the principle at hand is that groups should be represented fairly and equally (whatever that means), a lack of universal inclusivity fails to meet that standard. To put it in the context of World War Z and your review: while it may be true that white men were featured to a far greater extent than black men, the comparison could be extended ad nauseum to any number of groupings. The principle itself is thus an absurd basis for analysis in my mind. I see no non-arbitrary reason why any group comparison is any more significant than another: I could just as easily suggest that World War Z is ‘ageist’ because old people are relegated to zombie meat and bystander roles; I could similarly make the case that World War Z is guilty of unequal representation of gothic-minded citizens — I don’t recall seeing a single goth.

      One may argue: but surely a group such as women in general is more important than gothic-minded citizens. But why? On what basis? Is it because they have a larger population? Wouldn’t that be ‘populationist’? Is it because they serve a more important role in society? Wouldn’t that be ‘roleist’?

      I am not concerned with which groups you decided to analyze, but rather with the premises of the argument.

      In regards to “equal, fair and represented representation” being (apparently by default) a good thing: if you are convinced that this is a self-evident good, I would like to hear what reasoning is involved. There is no a priori case to be made for it, so ultimately any justification is going to stem from value-based evaluations. And that’s precisely my point: it’s not an inherent good. In modern political discourse it may be characterized as such, but that does not make it so.

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    • Ran out of time to reply today. I’ll reply back tomorrow.

      Thank you for your thoughts. I’m stilling thinking about them too before I’m ready to reply. :)

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    • Thanks again for your insights. I do really see more than before all of the truly endless variations that exist in humans (such as, your goth example) that film neglects to speak to in far too many cases. I would suggest, however, that it remains a problem since the majority of filmic representations only focus on the “most default of groups” so to speak. Films can and should incorporate various elements of diversity and difference – that they don’t is the problem. When we have a diverse population made up of all kind of people, film needs to represent more than stereotypical notions of white men and white women.

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    • Thanks for responding. I will have to disagree. I do not find the diversity agenda to be the least bit principled or consistent. I think of it like this: if it is accepted as valid that different groups should be represented in film (in some normative sense) by virtue of the fact that the population is not homogeneous, how can that ever occur in an equitable, non-discriminatory way? Every choice to include is simultaneously a choice NOT to include. Action, choice by definition is discriminatory. To further compound the issue: due to the arbitrary nature of group delineations, it is impossible to be universally inclusive. We can use World War Z as an example. Let’s imagine that the story were rewritten to include a black character with a larger role and more profound sense of importance; let us also imagine that there was a more equitable degree of balance between the sexes in terms of screen time and variety of character interactions. On the one hand, champions of diversity, equality could proclaim: this film has successfully represented diverse racial and gender groups. But such an evaluation would necessarily be discriminatory: by deeming the film’s representation of these groups as a success of diversity, it would simultaneously belittle every other possible group configuration by neglecting to consider them in its critique. Indeed, the film itself would be vulnerable to critique on a limitless number of fronts: homosexual groups could just as easily argue that their lack of inclusion was discriminatory; ranchers and cattle farmers could equally proclaim that the abundance of urban folk was discriminatory and represents an attack against the agriculturally minded; the unfortunate many who suffer from hair loss could band together as a group and suggest that Brad Pitt’s casting choice implicitly normalizes a world of the haired, simultaneously brandishing them inferior. And any attempt to belittle the claims from ANY group would by definition be discriminatory and arbitrary.

      As I said previously, there is absolutely no way to say that any particular group configuration is any more important than another. Yet, advocates of diversity clearly and consistently focus on only particular groups — namely those which are in vogue. But as I pointed out, I can’t really blame them. It is impossible in the fullest sense of the word to represent every group.

      Again, what I think diversity and equality advocates fail to recognize is that discrimination is inherent in every act taken and in every choice made.

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  3. One scene that stands out the most in my mind is in the W.H.O. Headquarters, before Pitt leads the group into the B-wing. A black woman is standing behind a glass wall. Please re-watch that scene. She is not aggressive or physically threatening, yet continuously grimaces and makes caricature grimaces against the glass. I was extremely offended by this representation even though I am white and American and generally privileged.

    The other offensive scene is when the virologist calls nature a bitch. Standard whiteboy capitalist sentiment, in my opinion.

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  4. Some of you guys go way too far on analyzing details. @Norm Ativ, that logic is so flawed because no matter which “race” the producer would’ve put in the cell, you could’ve said the same argument. So if that zombie was white, asian, black or hispanic while doing grimaces, it would be a real insult to any races….(not). The movie was far from perfect, that, I must agree, but some of you guys are really pushing it. By your logic, if the producer decided that Pitt eats a Nutella toast rather than peanut butter toast, does that make him an “anti-peanut butter” guy???

    There was no discrimination in the movie. It showed us the perspective of many ethnic groups while of course having a majority of white people because the movie is taking place in the USA, where there is a lot of white people. Then the movie goes to Israel, how the hell do you feel insulted to see people that look traditional with robes and scarfs on their heads, it’s a normal thing. Would you feel insulted (or whatever emotion you are claiming) if the movie switched to Africa and you saw a bunch of black people? No, because it’s normal… A simple question here; how is it racist that some third world countries, which are having difficulties in todays world, where there are no zombies, receive the “cure” from others that just discovered it? It’s kind of normal… Did you expect the Africans to discover it suddenly out of no where?

    Not a perfect movie and maybe not ideal representation of the different groups, but no racism or discrimination to be seen.

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    • Interpretations can vary. But people racialized as white are no longer in the (numerical) majority in the United States, in the vasty majority of places and according to a variety of sources.

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  5. I wrote in my blog few months ago about racism in World War Z, but a different form of racism than the one you saw in the film. I may agree with your criticism of sexism or the heroism of the white male, but I don’t think that the film was unfavorable to Israelis (at least vis-a-vis Palestinians). One cannot but compare the wall around Jerusalem in the film with the actual wall Israel is now building there. Indeed the Zombies who overtook Jerusalem are nothing, in my opinion, but a reference to the Arabs living in the West Bank, who are seen by many Israelis as an existential threat; Not to mention that Jerusalem is until now disputed between Israeli and Palestinians, but the film simply portray it as the capital of Israel (there isn’t a single country in the world, by the way, which recognizes this claim).

    I would love to hear your comments about my piece. Here is the link: http://religionculturesociety.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/world-war-z-a-zombie-movie-to-promote-racism/

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